Odd Shelf: Winter’s Tale

I love accidentally finding a book that will become a favorite.

I stumbled onto Winter’s Tale last semester taking a Shakespeare class. Because we received extra credit for watching movie versions of the plays we were studying, I looked up Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale on IMBD and found a movie starring Colin Farrell, Will Smith and Russell Crowe. It wasn’t yet released and I was about to be disappointed, until I noticed the writing credits weren’t attributed to William Shakespeare, but a novelist named Mark Helprin who’d written a book called Winter’s Tale in the early eighties.

It had this byline: “A fantasy story set in 1900’s and present-day Manhattan and revolves around a thief, a dying girl, and a flying white horse.”

I thought to myself: I love New York City. I love it especially at the turn of the century. And, by darn, I love romance when it involves a thief. Plus, flying white horse? Count me in.

So I bought the mass market paperback for a penny and read it during my trip to England.

That horse up there's Athansor--you gonna luff him.

That horse up there’s Athansor–you gonna luff him.

So, what’s up with this book?

From Amazon, here’s a slightly longer description:

“New York City is subsumed in arctic winds, dark nights, and white lights, its life unfolds, for it is an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built, and nothing exists that can check its vitality. One night in winter, Peter Lake–orphan and master-mechanic, attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side.

Though he thinks the house is empty, the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the love between Peter Lake, a middle-aged Irish burglar, and Beverly Penn, a young girl, who is dying.”

And that’s BEFORE we get to present Manhattan. (Of course “present” is the late 70’s in this story. At one point, a tycoon in the story has an interaction with a massive room-sized computer that’s pretty amusing).

Guys, I really loved this book.

I’m going to try not to gush too much because I know already, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Magical realism bugs some people. (If you’re not sure what that is, don’t compare it with fantasy. It’s more . . . modern myth, with a slight fairy tale flavor.) The descriptions are breathtakingly lovely, but long and omnipresent. But I do guarantee you won’t likely have in-the-middle feelings about it.

Why you should read it:

It’s complete insanity and rushing magic. It’s a “fire-breathing dragon of a novel.”

Some of the metaphors are still with me.

AND, this isn’t a bite-sized, one-sitting kind of read. You have to chew it slowly and take a few weeks with this one. Simply put, you can’t read this book super fast, even if you want to. Hence, because you’re spending so much time with it, you feel as if you’re gaining a relationship with it.

Also, I LOVE PETER LAKE.

AND ATHANSOR.

And you will too.

Why I like it as a writer:

First of all, this is a wicked hard style to pull off. I feel as if this, along with Cloud Atlas, Atlas Shrugged and One Hundred Years of Solitude, should be textbook writings if you’re trying to work this whole magical realism/philosophy/grand-ideas-in-fiction thing with any sort of flair.

Also, language.

Have I mentioned that it’s beautifully written?

Mark Helprin loves words and language just for the sake of language, and it shows. As the Newsday review says, “This novel…is a gifted writer’s love affair with the language.”

Why people who don’t like it don’t:

As I already said, it’s a meaty book to get through. If you’re the kind of reader who likes fast-paced plots and entertainment, this one might be a little hard going for you. It’s thick with descriptions that can be hard to get through.

Sometimes the “magic” of the story teeters almost too far on the side of “too bizarre.” I, personally, loved these bizarre moments that were almost comical in their suddenness–but not everyone will, and that’s understandable.

In the end, it gets my high approval: pick you up a one cent copy today!

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